Governance commentators have described contents of a leaked memo from Secretary to the President and Cabinet (OPC) Colleen Zamba to controlling officers as a reflection of the deterioration of professionalism in the civil service.
In the memo dated August 10, 2022, and addressed to all principal secretaries (PSs) and heads of departments, Zamba expresses her disappointment over the shoddy reports her office gets from the ministers and controlling officers.
“I have observed submission of substandard Cabinet papers by ministries, including poor presentation of issues, illegible fonts and grammatical errors, I have also noted lack of adherence to stipulated guidelines and submission headlines,” Zamba says in the memo.
She adds that the reports from the top civil servants lack quality that is beyond reproach and fail to form the basis of Cabinet decisions, action minutes and government records.
In an interview with The Daily Times, the SPC said the substandard work could be a result of absence of professional personnel.
“It may be true that these are effects of unprofessional personnel who were recruited over the years and also lack of training over the years. These are issues we are tackling at the monthly [PS] meetings,” she said.
Governance specialist Henry Chingaipe said Zamba is justified by calling out the ministries and departments.
“Government offices have to continue beyond individuals. If I am the SPC today and you deploy a memo to me, you have deployed it to my office. So when I leave the office, the issue will continue.
“As such, the next SPC should be able to track and link it to previous memos on the next issue. If you are not quoting the reference numbers and letters properly, for instance, you are creating a big problem in terms of tracking issues and tracking decisions or the history of the matter for decision making within the government,” Chingaipe said.
He added that the problem can also be attributed to non-professional personnel in some government offices.
“Maybe it is about the people. I have heard explanations and justifications to the effect that some people who join the civil service mid-way or at the top have not been properly inducted on how government communications and these kinds of things are done. I think there has been a lapse over the years in the sense that people that are new have not undertaken orientation or induction programmes,” he said.
Director of the Centre for Research and Consultancy Milwad Tobias said Zamba’s memo suggests elements of negligence of duty in following guidelines on simple things such as preparing a document, in this case, a Cabinet paper.
“This may be due to a number of reasons including poor orientation of some senior public officers. In the multi-party era, the public service has become compromised.
“Some people are appointed to senior positions even when they have no prior experience of public service standards. Others skip some grades and are appointed to hold senior positions prematurely,” Tobias said.
He added that in some cases, senior officers simply relax without checking documents before taking them to higher offices.
Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace National Coordinator Boniface Chibwana said the memo from Zamba is indicative of the declining standards of professionalism in Malawi’s civil service and the lack of regard for high levels of the same by successive governments.
“The SPC’s outcry means that the government machinery has, over time, paid little attention to values of etiquette and protocol managing government routine affairs and compliance with attendant standards,” Chibwana said.
He described the memo as a wake-up call for the current government to reorganise the country’s civil service through proper orientation and training to regain its lost glory as one of the best civil services in Southern Africa.